“You’re blue family until someone doesn’t agree with the way they died.” I will never forget reading this line in an article a few years ago.
And I’ll never forget this excerpt from my dad’s suicide note.
“The sixth interview could be of [name withheld] … I wish he had pried a little harder, and I would have told him how I really felt. He told me he did not think I would commit suicide because I was still talking to him, and people that talk about suicide do not really mean it…I considered him a friend – but we did not get together enough – or become close enough, or be intimate about how our lives were going. Little did he know how I felt inside…”
Law enforcement officers are 8x more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, yet PTSD is not a line-of-duty death. No benefits are given to the family, health insurance is immediately revoked, no life insurance is given, and often families are responsible for paying for funerals. Most of the time those funerals are not with honors.
It was the summer of ’93, full of baseball, fishing, and backyard campouts. The first half anyway. July 9th changed everything. I was playing Mario Kart at my house with my neighbor James. I ran upstairs to get something on a quick break from this heated match and heard the door open. The sound of heavy footsteps paired with the sound of his voice as he yelled, “You better tell those girls how much I love them.”
I got to the front door in time to see him get into the car and drive off. Those were the last words he spoke to anyone before driving to a remote area where he shot himself in the temple.
But I didn’t know that yet, so I continued playing video games with James.
At some point, one of my dad’s colleagues’ wives came over. They were friends of ours, so it didn’t register with me that they were there for any particular reason.
There were other things that happened that morning I didn’t understand and didn’t know at the time. I’m grateful that my family and I were spared from his irrational and drunken state.
Then, his chief showed up, and it was my mom’s screams that ushered me up the stairs. Her best friend, Deb, was standing in the kitchen and put her arm around me. “Your dad died. He shot himself,” was what she said immediately, and it was also all she said. In that second, a flip switched in me – and the prison walls went up. This is the exact moment where my motto, “Fuck everyone” entered my life. I was 9 years old.
The very next afternoon, I made my mom take me to my baseball. I was going to move on with life as normal, right? The team warmups began with pointing and whispers and ended with my bat flying full speed at the dugout when I struck out. Thank goodness for the chain link fence!
My dad was my hero.
He taught me so much in such a short time – basketball, baseball, mountain biking, chess, how to light campfires, and on, and on. Writing about all of the memories wouldn’t do justice to how much I loved him and felt loved by him. He was my protector, the person I’d rather be with than anyone else, and he made me feel like I was his world; and I was for a period of time. He called me his “pie,” and we had special lines that we said to each other when saying goodbye and goodnight. I still miss hearing it. When he came home for dinner on shift, I’d make him carry me to his patrol car, and he would hug and kiss me goodbye. I remember his Kevlar, his whiskers, his voice. When he was good, he was the best dad I could have ever asked for.
My mom and sister would tell this story differently. In the last year of his life, the alcohol abuse became too much. He was physically and emotionally abusive to them. Without going into specifics for their privacy, I will say there were cops at our home on multiple occasions, and nothing ever happened. Some, if not all, of his fellow officers, knew what was going on. My mom’s black eyes and my sister’s school absences were telling. There weren’t interventions, that I am aware of, arrests, or real protection for our family given how volatile things had become. It was a smaller town and department, and no one wanted to do anything to help. He was having an affair as well. I don’t know how long it had gone on. I do remember waking up in the middle of the night in the weeks leading up to his death and hearing him pleading with this woman to not leave him, how could he live without her….
The night before the funeral, his side of the family came into town, and a fight ensued about how it was our (my mom’s, my sister’s, and my) fault that he did this. My mom’s boss catered a big meal at his home that we were all supposed to be at. None of them went, nor did my dad’s colleagues. I felt alone and ashamed. Blue family, right? The fact that my dad’s own colleagues didn’t show up, made me hauntingly aware of the reality of the ostracization that happens in these stories.
At his funeral, despite my attempts to hold it all back, one single tear made its way out. A friend was speaking about how proud of me my dad was and how much he bragged about me and my sports. As we walked out of the church, I caught the eye of two of my teachers and gave them a half smile. They both had, what I labeled at the time, looks of pity on their faces. I now know that it was compassion and sympathy, but at that moment, I vowed no one would ever look at me with pity again.
In the following two years as I finished 4th and 5th grade and was placed in gifted programs. I was one of the most athletic kids, and I was mean to people. My shoving was warranted in situations where I was told, “Your dad killed himself because you’re so ugly,” but most of the time it was not. I was angry and doing my best to hide it. There was this need to deter people from ever saying anything about it to me. While I don’t feel good about the way I treated some kids, I have to remember that I was a kid whose father decided that putting a gun to his head was the best choice for everyone. That best choice threw me into a life full of shame and being mean was the outward expression of an inner life of turmoil.
I continued to get good grades and excel in basketball. Receiving letters as a freshman was the best distraction for me, but as the story goes, we moved across the state in the summer between my 9th and 10th-grade years.
That summer that we left, I lost everyone again. I didn’t tell my friends I was moving or say goodbye to anyone. This slipping out without goodbyes was the beginning of a pattern that would become part of my personality.
More losses came. I lost basketball due to two torn ACLs, and finally, the inevitable came. It was in my senior year that I experienced my first existential crisis and battled with depression. I was a master distractor with sports, and there was this deep desire to be close to my coaches and admired by my peers. I didn’t believe that there was anything about me (other than sports and academics) that would make anyone want to stay around. It was unfathomable to me that anyone liked me. So, when I lost basketball, my identity was stripped from me again, just like when I was 9 years old. In all fairness, I maintained a few friendships, but internally I was burning myself down.
Even at a younger age, I had some understanding of what happened. I never blamed anyone, myself included, or even got really mad at him. I felt deeply sad for myself and for him.
He LOVED being a cop, and I hate that something he loved brought out so many demons.
My dad saw things I wouldn’t wish on anyone. He was on SWAT, and I remember reading a sympathy card from his co-worker detailing how he remembered standing next to my dad as they dug up the remains of a murdered toddler, and how that stuck with my dad. He has been harassed and called all of the usual names by people in the public (hell, they even called me a pig’s daughter), and there’s an endless list of violence, death, and hatred that he witnessed, as do most first responders. I sure did love going to the empty warehouse with him and his friend for K-9 training – he would bring the dog to my school for presentations, and he was always handing out baseball cards and stickers. He LOVED being a cop, and I hate that something he loved brought out so many demons.
There’s plenty of research that children of parental suicide are more likely to commit suicide than other populations. I would hit 30 before I went to therapy. I suppose if I was pissed about anything, it was that he put giving up on the table for me at age 9. Without reminiscing on the last 28 years of my life, I’ll say that in 2019 all the shame, anger, and confusion that I had bottled up my whole life began poisoning me to a point I’d never reached before. I am grateful I had great friends, a great partner, and a great therapist to get me through. The last 3 years of my life have been the best and healthy I could imagine. I’ve grieved (though, does that ever end or just evolve), accepted, been angry, and still come to a place of compassion. For myself, I have grace. For my dad, I give him grace.
Intellectually it all made sense, but apparently, those activities that I engaged in to distract myself and others aren’t a good substitute for real emotional work, therapy, or the grieving process. I could never admit how much shame I had or that I deemed myself unlovable and unworthy. I especially made sure to hold the façade of never admitting that anyone could do anything to me that could hurt me. I didn’t have the words or understanding when I was younger, but I know now that the impact of this life-changing event (at 9 years old), led me to internalize a belief that if my own dad didn’t want to stick around, then why would anyone else? I hate saying that as it’s so cliché, but if I hadn’t cared about clichés, I may have gotten help sooner.
I don’t blame anyone for his decision. The responsibility falls on him and him alone, but I do wonder if there had been more help or a different attitude towards mental health in the field, if maybe then he would have chosen differently.
“Oh, he took the coward’s way out. How selfish. I would never (gasp) do that to my family.” I say, “Good for you.”
I do know that he tried to get help, and he was failed by his department as well as the system. His medication was mismanaged (some might call that a bold claim, and that’s okay. I can’t go into those specifics here). He let his Chief know he was seeking therapy and treatment. Instead of providing support, my dad’s business was communicated to his fellow officers. What betrayal. What mismanagement of someone’s personal struggle. Imagine walking into work and being called names, having your livelihood threatened, and being made fun of for the heroic effort of seeking help! This didn’t help, and I can only presume that caused further damage to his already aching soul.
People want to judge and give their opinions on everything. Unless you have lived with, loved, or been a first responder, the outside chatter of the peanut gallery doesn’t mean much. I have friends who have said to me, “Oh, he took the coward’s way out. How selfish. I would never (gasp) do that to my family.” I say, “Good for you.”
I worked in healthcare for 16 years, and many of those were spent in an ICU. I took care of more suicide attempt victims than I can count. While I was lucky enough to not have to find my dad, I have no questions about what he looked like when he was found. And much like digging up a toddler would be, it was traumatizing and for a while tormenting.
The financial burden was unbearable to the point of bankruptcy for our family. Health insurance was immediately gone, with no pension, no benefits, and no life insurance. There was no GoFundMe for our family. That platform did not exist back then, but if people want to help, they find a way, and most didn’t.
I’m deeply thankful for the one phenomenal human in town who made some provisions, however, the concern and support from his department did not last long. If he had been killed by someone else’s hand, I undoubtedly would have had 10 guys walking me into my first day of 4th grade a month after his death. I wouldn’t have skipped science invention day because I couldn’t figure out how to make anything in comparison to my peers whose fathers clearly constructed their “inventions.” Maybe one of them would have taken me to the father/daughter dance. Maybe they would have come to my basketball games once in a while and just checked in on us.
Instead, I (and my family) was ousted from that community. I’ll repeat the quote, “You’re blue family until they don’t agree with the way someone died.”
Why did his passionate service not matter? I heard over and over what a great police officer he was, how much he really cared about people, and the difference he did make. Why did that not matter anymore?
In April of 2021, I received a phone call from one of my dad’s old colleagues. He told me he received a call from the Sheriff’s department that was responsible for his death investigation. They just happened to be cleaning out their forensics storage unit and found a few items. A couple of day planners, and a 3-page suicide note that I was never aware of.
Twenty-seven years after his death. I understand the “evidence” issues surrounding suicide notes, but not having looked in that storage unit for 27 years, or just not bothered to acknowledge it, boggles my mind.
The letter detailed how he felt that he failed his kids, how the abuse he suffered as a child at the hand of his father was passed down, and this was the only way he knew to stop the generational abuse pattern.
It reads, “I loved them so much, but yet caused them so much pain with my anger, hate, and pain encountered in my own childhood and never resolved.”
“I refuse to perpetuate the abuse I encountered during my childhood by continuing to treat them as was I.”
“I feel the most pain for my daughters. I wanted so much to be a part of their lives and be the father I wanted to be to them. I failed that too, and only caused them more pain in their childhood, which was exactly what I was trying to avoid. In trying to avoid generational abuse, I only made it worse…”
And the punch to the gut…
“My own family does not care whether I am here or not.”
If only he had known that I thought he was the best dad, that I would miss him every day for the rest of my life, and that I did need him.
For me, however, it was the perfect time to read this note. If I had received this 5, 8, or 10 years ago, it would have sent me into a spiral. I would not have found peace or closure in it. Parts of it would have enraged me, but I don’t take these things personally now. I can see how sick he was and that he was not capable of having the clarity to understand or even believe that this isn’t how it needed to end.
When I got the news of the letter, I called a friend of mine who was friends with my dad and who now lives in Denver. His words couldn’t have rung truer when he told me, “It’s your dad telling you that he is okay and that you are okay.” I love that I have this person who knew my dad well and that I have the opportunity to hear stories about him, especially the stories of how kind he was and how funny he was.
Even though my dad chose to take his life, I was so proud to hear my friend say that I reminded him of my dad, funny and caring. It provided solace, in that, although I didn’t know him for long, he still lives in me.
I went through most of my life feeling like I didn’t belong. I didn’t have a tribe of people. I didn’t have a family (ours became completely estranged). I just had a feeling of not belonging anywhere.
While I understood things that were happening growing up, I wasn’t mature enough to perceive reality. My mom is an absolute champion, and it wasn’t until I was older that I could comprehend how much of a financial and emotional crisis she went through as well.
Why our government thought PTSD was not a line of duty death until recently is beyond me. I hesitated to share parts of my dad’s note because it could be concluded that his death was all based on his own past trauma. I know though, from my own experience, that working a job where you see the worst parts of humanity can compound and amplify life experiences so that they become the catalyst for a downward hopeless spiral.
After his funeral, there hasn’t been a single time that my dad was honored, not a mention of his name with the exception of a few suicide awareness walks that I participated in. Eventually, we just accept that is how it went and have no expectations as time moves on. We can only honor the loved one within our own lives.
In 2020, I found Blue H.E.L.P., and I learned about their mission and of all the ways they are helping people. I also attended First H.E.L.P. family weekend this fall. Part of me was terrified to go because I wondered if it would open old wounds or show me that I might not have made the progress I think I have. I wondered if I was going to cry the entire time.
Going was healing, but not in the way that I expected. It was emotional, but also not how I expected. When I walked into the hotel lobby, I saw pictures of every single first responder whose family member(s) were in attendance. I was overcome with sadness and pride that my dad was on display and being HONORED.
I did not get as emotional as I expected, and I noticed such a shift in me. I do a lot of fundraising and work to support first responders, and sometimes it can feel like it doesn’t matter. As soon as I walked into the lobby and went to dinner with everyone, my heart was overflowing. Especially for the kids. I saw ten-year-old me, and I was so happy that they have this organization and this place to come to for support. I met some of the strongest people I know in the widow, parents, and siblings of the fallen. I do wonder what would have been different in my life if an organization like this existed for my family. More needs to be done to stop this epidemic. And I will continue to fight for it. Because THIS is my blue family.
by Leslie Maginn
Daughter of Officer Joseph Maginn